I am standing on a ladder in my nice little summer tea-dress and Marjory’s wellies. Holding the ladder enthusiastically is Kit. We are playing a little game where I pretend that I am completely unaware that he is looking up my dress and he is pretending that he is unaware that he knows that I’m aware he’s looking up my dress. We are ‘Carry-On Cherry Picking.’
The orchard is big. If I knew how large an acre was I’d guess it was a few of those. You know how one punnet seems like a lot of cherries? Well think of ten thousand punnets – that’s how many we’ve got here. And you know how cherries in Sainburys cost £3.99 a box? I am just looking around me and thinking -money, money, tasty money. Cherries are dripping off the trees, all a velvety red/purple and almost exactly the same colour as ‘Vamp’ nail-polish by Chanel.
Kit and I are not alone. There’s an old guy helping pick as well. The cherries are to be sold tomorrow at a car-boot sale. He is picking faster than we two combined and occasionally makes his feelings known. For those who are into regional linguistical variety, the old guy says:
‘Ah hint seen yew luvvers fill wun baaasket, corr oi hint minabbe doowin all moiown. Us ulh mint tebe in Gillinham caaah boot morra un yew, blust as yew bahrnibees is gettin on moi wick, all puttin on sappy paaarts loike thaat.’
This morning I did open my laptop to work but was interrupted by a phonecall from my step-father George. He only calls when my mother is too upset to talk and needs a spokesman.
‘You may not realise this, but your mother is too upset to talk to you.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘What’s wrong? Well, you didn’t return her call on your birthday, which has made her sad. And then she got a call yesterday from Sheila to say that apparently you’ve left Tom’s flat and are now living somewhere near Norwich.’
Sheila is Tom’s mum. All my family communicate behind my back.
George and I never lived together smoothly from the outset when he arrived, bringing with him a copy of the Telegraph and his two-year old daughter Lizzie. I was seven. I made his life difficult by making his life difficult. He, in turn, was able to mortify me at the drop of a hat. One example.
I am eleven. George has taken Lizzie and I out for lunch at Pizza Hut. I do what used to be my public George-specific ritual, which is not actually consume the food I’m given. I half-chew it, shove more in but never swallow. Eventually it squeezes out of my mouth like a play-dough machine. This drives George mad for putting everyone off their food and on grounds of money wasted. His face, inclusive of balding head, goes pink. He shouts at me:
‘For God’s sake Miriam, masticate! MASTICATE!’
There is no conversation from fellow diners for a good ten minutes.
On the phone, George continues;
‘Sheila was very nice about it but Tom is quite angry. I’m afraid, Darling, it just makes us think you’re being self-centered again.’
George calls me Darling when I’ve disappointed him.
The best way to ignore reality is to pick cherries in the sunshine with Kit.
We fill over eighty punnets, which go into three cardboard boxes. Kit takes two and I follow with the last. He is wearing his lumber shirt again. It has splotches of cherry juice on it.
I do what I often do, which is carry the box on my head. I do this because it’s easier, because it shows I have an independent spirit and makes me look exotic. Then I realise I just look like a loon. Then I feel embarrassed. By the time I have gone through the ‘take-it-off-you-look-like-a-nut/but-then-I’m-giving-into-the-constrained-expectations-of-society’ argument in my head, I’ve usually reached wherever it is I’m going.
Kit doesn’t seem to mind though and we talk as we go.
‘Did Wym tell you I found Prop wandering in the rain yesterday?’
‘No, he didn’t.’
‘So Prop’s your father too?’
‘That’s how it works.’
‘I’d love to hear more about your family,’ I pry.
There’s a pause.
‘Two boys, a mother and a father. That’s about it. Conventional.’
Him and Wym! Neither of them tripping over themselves to lift the curtain.
Around the side of the Big House is a dank courtyard that leads to the kitchens. It’s north-facing and slightly green with damp. Kit says that’s where the servants used to have their bedrooms. It’s a dose of institutionalised class values in brick form.
The courtyard has bedrooms, weeds and a door to the kitchen. I am interested to see inside but we don’t make it that far; he leads me to a tiny cold room with little holes in the wall and a skanky white chest freezer. Shelves hold boxes of root vegetables, dated condiments and dusty home-made bottled booze. There are white onions like giant pearl necklaces hanging on hooks. I feel a certain tension being in a close, dark, confined room with Kit. I have imagined kissing him, and it seemed to go fine in my head. Now that we’re very close, my heart is going bumpbumpbump in my ribcage. I affect complete calm so open up the chest freezer for a nosy.
The chest freezer is a nightmare – it’s a scene directed by the Coen Brothers. So many dead animals lying frosted and glaze-eyed. They all look terror-filled, in set motions of ‘running away.’ Kit hardly seems to care, pulling out a frozen popsicle rodent and holding it by its long rear leg so it points to the ceiling.
‘Hare!’ he says.
The romance has gone from me. I turn down Kit’s offer of company and trudge home. The bodies in the ice-box make me think about the skeletons in Kit’s cupboard. I wonder if the barman at the White Lion considers Monday ‘midweek?’